What happened when I made a resolution to not buy anything new for a year

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Alissa
By: posterboynyc
By: posterboynycCC BY 2.0

I made a resolution last year. Big surprise, lots of people make resolutions. But here’s the thing I realized about New Year’s resolutions. The big ones, the ones that matter, and that you really really REALLY want to keep and be successful? Ideally they’re not just for one year. They are habit-changing LIFE resolutions.

People don’t want to quit smoking just to start again 365 days later. People don’t want to lose weight for a year just to gain it back. People don’t want to get out of debt just to do an about-face back into it.

My resolution this year was The Compact, defined by Wikipedia as "a social and environmental movement whose members promise not to buy anything new for a year." I was excited about this resolution, and I loved it. It was a great year. But, it’s not the type of resolution that you can sustain for life. Because even if I can put off buying a mattress for the year, eventually one day I still do need to replace it.

So here’s how my Compact experience went… In the first four months of 2014, I only bought two things: a birthday gift for my grandma, and something I had already known I would need to purchase thus established as an exception on the day I set the resolution. Keeping my resolution was surprisingly easy — realizing that I didn’t need these things that were temptations — and even freeing — not even being distracted wandering through the aisles “just to look” because I wasn’t going to buy anything anyway.

And then things changed…

As the year went on it became clear that there were some things more important than keeping my resolution. I didn't immediately fill up a shopping cart at Target, but I did start to shell out some bucks. Two of my friends published books; in support of their years of hard work I bought copies. In January I had no idea that before the year was over I'd have to train for and run two very long and difficult races; in support of my health and safety I bought replacement running shoes that weren't bald on the bottom. I went to Uganda and met widow merchants creating goods to support their families; in support of these women and the local economy I didn't hesitate to spend freely and bring their wares back home with me to share with friends and family.

Coming up on the year's end, I made a list of everything purchased in the past 12 months. It fits easily on a 3×5 card. But what's most interesting is that I can recall every single thing. Every item on that list was purchased deliberately and with consideration, nothing was bought on a whim or just because it was cheap or on sale. Looking back at that list, I don't regret any of those purchases.

So, technically, I broke my resolution. But I’m okay with that. Actually MORE than okay!

I went into the year with a goal of decreasing accumulation, spending, and waste. But if I came out the other side with the same habits I had prior, what would the point have been? Instead, I’m going into the future armed with a continuing life resolution to be thoughtful in what I own, how I spend my money, and the amount of waste I generate.

Living, and breaking, The Compact taught me a lot of things this year that I hope to carry well beyond a one-year resolution:

  • I have enough, MORE than enough! I need to be more grateful for what I have, never taking it for granted.
  • I need less than I think. In fact, there are some things I don’t “need” at all.
  • Stuff doesn't have to be new, shiny, and in perfect condition to still be useful. I don’t need to replace something as soon as it breaks — or possibly at all.
  • Quality is better than quantity.
  • Generosity is better than stuff. By not buying I freed up funds, and found I was delighted to treat friends to lunch or a movie or redirect those to people in need. Best “purchases” of the year, hands down.

Stuff is awesome and there’s nothing wrong with having stuff. But it should be accumulated thoughtfully, responsibly, and with gratitude and joy.

  1. Awesome! I totally love this! I'm moving out of home for the first time this year, and I'm terrified of the financial strain. Great reminder that I don't have to have 'new' everything.

  2. Very neat concept. I like the exceptions that you made! I am on a "we're moving in 6 months"-imposed buying freeze. It is kind of freeing! And I will re-read this article when moving into our new place because that's when I tend to think that I need ALL THE THINGS.

    For awhile I've been consciously trying to not buy decorative items, though. I save my shelf space for objects with personal meaning, like gifts, objects from my grandparent's house, or tokens from travel.

    • Isn't it so freeing to NOT be tempted to purchase stuff? I was actually amazed how freeing it was! Window shopping truly became window shopping, or I didn't bother browsing at all. When I did see something I thought strongly about buying I had to consider "Will I still want / need this in a year?"

  3. While reading this I started to reflect on my spending habits and wonder if I could pull this kind of thing off. I think it would be harder than I might expect. I don't buy a lot of clothes, so that part would be easy enough. But I do have a tendency to pick up little household things that I probably don't really need, like cleaning products that I hardly use, or kitchen gadgets. Personal/body care stuff is another big one. I have recently embarked on a big 'clean everything, purge everywhere' campaign, so being more conscious of what comes into my apartment in the first place is definitely a good goal!

    • The entire idea was kicked off for me in part by OBH's article last January on curbing impulse spending (http://offbeathome.com/2014/01/impulse-spending <– read it if you haven't!) where one commenter mentioned The Compact. I was convicted about the times I buy something only because it's on sale, or "just a dollar", or it's just plain tempting because OOO SHINY IT'S NEW AND I DON'T HAVE IT!!!

      One commenter on that post recommended a book: Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I read it and was overwhelmed — not just by the unethical practices and waste in the fashion industry, but by the waste in ALL of our consumption. Stuff is built cheaply, not meant to last, and by workers in terrible conditions.

      The Compact gave me the personal ammo I needed to not glance at the dollar bins at Target because I couldn't buy anything anyway. And now that the year's over, I'm still not really tempted to look because (a) I don't really want that extra stuff cluttering my life up AND (b) after reading that book the words "Made in China" take on a whole different meaning for me. Sadly it's hard to find much that ISN'T made in third world countries, but I'm at least trying to purchase less of it to create less demand and waste.

  4. I would love to try this! I would have to make exceptions for business expenses though. What did you do about food? Did you have any specific rules for that?

    • Food and other "consumables" (shampoo, Kleenex, gasoline, etc) were exempt; my goal was to look at how much physical "stuff" I owned. However, I did end up spending a bit more on food in 2014 that normal because I had some freed up funds — which I'm okay with because I get great enjoyment from eating good, delicious, quality food. AND it meant that in some cases I could now buy the fancy organic stuff because I could afford it — and, bonus, it's healthier!! 🙂

  5. I love this so much! It's an idea I can get behind, although I wonder if it's possible to do this with a very young child. Maybe it's worth a try anyway…

    • According to the wiki link says that they are not supposed to buy anything NEW: "During their one year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. One's trash is another's treasure. Compacters use Freecycle.org or freegle http://www.ilovefreegle.org/ where they post what they want and what they are giving away so that they can avoid buying new and still get the goods they want. Craigslist.org is another source of used goods."

      I think you could do this with a young child if you went to second-hand stores and garage sales for the items that the child needs/wants (such as clothes and toys). Garage sales are a great way to get gently-used kids items for good prices! You're still 'buying' things, just not 'new' items from 'big retailers'!

      • Indeed! I was trying to restrain from buying even used items, but that's technically stricter than The Compact. You can define your own resolution and terms, of course. But that caveat in The Compact does allow for a lot of flexibility. 🙂

        • I would make an exception for everyday shoes (or at least insoles). Shoes conform to the wearer's foot over time and little kids have very malleable feet so for proper development little kids need shoes that will adjust to their own feet. It's hard to get replacement insoles for most kids shoes but if you can that's a good compromise. Shoes that are worn infrequently (like dress shoes) or don't have a soft insole (like Tevas or Keens) are fine to purchase used.

      • Not buying new was / is a have to when we had a child! The idea started with All The Baby Clothes: people seem to get SO MUCH yet never wear any of it. I figured, why pay $20 for a 'new' outfit when I can pay $5 for the same 'new' outfit that hasn't been worn! They also grow so fast nothing lasts long anyway, no matter where you get it. That philosophy then overflowed into everything… crib, bedding, rocking chair, even our cloth diapers!

        There is so much "stuff" in our world, what I can do to use what we (as a people) already have available is my form of 'saving the world'.

      • I would recommend not purchasing stuffed toys second hand unless still with tags. Or washing them on full blast hot/hot dry. Personally i would still hesitate because I have a teething child who continues to put everything in his mouth and even my q-tip cleaning feels insufficient. We make up for it by buying toys made from recycled materials or brands like Hape and Haba not made in China.

  6. I just joined a "buy nothing group" on facebook in my neighborhood. It is amazing how one person's trash is another's treasure. Folks are trading around all sorts of things in this group, and it is great for building community and helping the environment. I've been really impressed at the high quality things that folks are sharing. It isn't the same as not buying for a year, but it feels like a step in the right direction!

  7. I really like this idea!
    I'm already trying not to buy any new clothes, which I find relatively easy as I'm not a fashion-loving gal.
    Next step is try to get my husband on board, as he comes from a very materalistic-inclined family. Hence a question: how did you deal with materialist persons when it comes to gift? Did you forgo presents for a year. Did you offer second-hand presents or even better, experiences? I find it hard to reconcile my would-be zero-waste tendancies with the wants and needs of people who think otherwise.

    A couple of months ago we faced a major relocation which left us without a lot of electronic appliances. So far I'm enjoying having as less electronics as possible in hour home: Iuse a broom instead of a vacuum, I use my grandma's antique veggie mill instead of mixer/blender, we now have a panini press which combines grilling/toasting/melting cheese in one appliance.
    As many have said, owning less is definitely freeing.

    • Regarding gifts, a few years ago I emailed my immediate family a few months before Christmas saying, "You know what? As awesome as gifts are, I really feel blessed and like I don't need anything else. Instead of us giving each other presents this year, how about we spend that money to [do activity] instead?" To my surprise, they were on board with that and we've done an activity every year since. Another time one of my friends sent out a group email that said, "I love you guys, but finances are tight right now. As such, please don't expect a Christmas present from us this year. Instead, we'd love to get together with you sometime for dinner or a hike or board games!" Everyone agreed and was relieved, even, to be released from the obligation of gifting. Occasionally there are small gifts among my family and friends, but they are always optional and never expected nor required.

      I admit that I was fortunate to have people who agreed to suspend gift-giving — which may not be everyone's situation. I'd suggest starting out with the conversation about why you're not interested in receiving gifts and proposing an alternative. For some people, gifts or gift-giving is their love language and they don't know many other ways to express their feelings. But even so, most people have more than one love language and they may be just as thrilled to have an alternative of spending quality time together, or thankful for your offer to help them tackle that yard project they've wanted to do so long, or be buoyed by a letter full of words of encouragement.

      Anyone else out there have any thoughts?

      • We reduced it to some degree in my family by having a name exchange. My husband and I were getting tired of the "everyone buys everyone gifts" thing, so I proposed to my siblings/siblings-in-law that we do a name exchange instead.

        It gives an outlet for the giving-as-love-language people, but limits the excessive shopping and giving. I have noticed that there have been more meaningful and/or practical gifts exchanged that aren't just "oh hey I had to buy you something so I just picked this." I like being able to focus on one of my siblings/in-laws and pick something I know they'll like use.

        Not the same as not buying anything, but it is one small step for families who loooove their Christmas gifting.

        • I love these ideas! Thank you, Alissa and Sara! This has been an issue weighing on my mind for some time, especially as I believe I have a loved one whose primary love language is, indeed, giving/receiving gifts (as opposed to most of our family, who just wants to spend holidays together, with few gifts or no gift exchange).

  8. This was inspiring. I already try to keep my purchases in some areas to a minimum (netflix subscription instead of buying DVDs, and I don't need new clothes any time soon), but I think I'll try and increase it. Food and hobbies only for awhile!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story! I hadn't heard of the compact, and this aligns well with a new year's goal/resolution/change that I'd already decided on – "waste less, buy less, use our own stuff more." My partner and I discussed this last night and I was surprised and gratified to find out that we were both on the same page about trying this out. We're already on a very tight budget, but talking about it and agreeing that we won't buy new things is a great relief – and pretty freeing, as you said. Yes, we will occasionally need things – but we'll look at thrift stores, on craigslist, and at garage/yard sales for them – and we'll think long and hard about what it is that we really need. We've been on a mindfulness kick as part of a stress reduction lifestyle for both of us, and it's great to find another way to employ it in our lives.

  10. I appreciate the sentiment of this piece, but I hope that the writer and commenters acknowledge that it is coming from a very very very privileged place. There are many of us who live a 'buy nothing' *life* from circumstance, not choice. If I buy *anything* new (or even used) it is a hard-won luxury that I have scrimped and saved for. Basically everything I own is hand-me-down or scavenged or scrupulously saved for. Enjoy basking in your smug. If I can afford to buy something new that I need &/or love this month, I shall.

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